Storming the Wall

Miller book documents growing border crackdowns on climate refugees

One hot day in Tabasco, southern Mexico, in 2015, author Todd Miller met three young Honduran farmers trying to escape catastrophe.

The men were sitting alongside a railroad track, waiting to catch a ride atop La Bestia, the dangerous train that penniless migrants ride north to the U.S.

Asked why they left their patches of land, 17-year-old Ismael, a farmer, replied, "There was no rain."

The trio were "climate refugees" fleeing for their lives, running from a devastating drought that "left a million families on the brink of starvation," Miller said last week. "The crops withered and died. One mayor called it an unprecedented calamity."

Tucsonan Miller, a widely published journalist who writes about the border and immigration, tells their story and others in his second book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. The book makes its debut Friday night with a reading at Antigone Books.

The book has been getting rave reviews for its prescient look at the way extreme climate disasters—from superstorms to rising sea levels to drought, wildfires and heat waves—are driving increasing numbers of people around the world to flee their homelands. And waiting to meet these desperate migrants are growing "border enforcement regimes."

As Miller writes, "the 21st century (will be) defined by the refugee meeting the razor-wire wall guarded by the guy with the big gun."

Also the author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, Miller spoke to the Weekly on a day last week that felt like climate Armageddon, with hurricanes, wildfires and an earthquake shaking large swatches of North America. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

How would you sum up your book?

The two big themes are climate change and borders. The most common projection is that 250 million people will be on the move by 2050 because of climate change. People most likely to be on the move are people in vulnerable situations, living in poverty. What's predicted is more extreme weather, hurricanes, super hurricanes.

There's been an upsurge in border building. There were about 15 border walls around the world when the Berlin Wall fell. Today we're at 70 border walls. Countries are building not only walls but border systems—they're like something out of science fiction novel: cameras, drones, robots, biometric systems, facial recognition.

In southern Arizona we see many migrants who've fled Central America. How has climate change affected them?

Climate exacerbates the stuff that we already know is a driver for people migrating north. Sociologist Christian Parenti wrote about "catastrophic convergence"—of economic, political and ecological issues that compound each other. Central America is rarely looked at in terms of climate change. Its problems are almost always framed as violence or gangs. But the problems are multi-faceted.

Climate scientist Chris Castro (a UA professor) says Central America is ground zero for climate change. It's an isthmus. You have two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, and you generate massive storms off either ocean. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was notorious. You have extreme weather hitting marginalized places. Also droughts have been intensifying, especially through the "dry corridor" that goes through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Honduras was the No. 1 country affected by climate change over a period of 25 years. Central American countries are getting nailed by climate change but it's layered underneath all the other stuff. If you're getting extorted or recruited at gun point by a gang, you're not going to talk about the drought.

Besides Honduras, you visited the Philippines, homeland of your late grandmother and another epicenter of climate change.

My grandmother was part of my life growing up. We always ate adobo when we went to her house. It's my favorite dish, a mixture of vinegary soy sauce with chicken and pork. Its distinct smell is the smell of my grandmother's house! Everywhere I went in the Philippines I smelled adobo.

It's an island nation, 7,000 islands, in the Pacific, an area with huge climate issues. The typhoons have been horrendous. On my grandmother's island, Marinduque, the rising sea is an issue. It was on her island that for the first time I saw the sea going into a house, eating it up, the waves coursing into it.

The typhoon Haiyan hit south of my grandmother's island. It was one of the strongest ever and hit the city of Tacloban full force. I got there a year later. It looked like a place that was recovering from a bomb. There was still damage everywhere, still people getting food handouts, lining up in lines a mile long. People told us stories of houses getting washed away, just decimated. For me, that was one of places that was really eye-opening. I began physically to see what this climate change thing is.

You report that the U.S. military and the Dept. of Homeland Security have been studying climate change and planning ways to stop the migrants it will drive north.

For the worst-case scenarios you can go to the military assessments—they have the most dystopic vision you could muster, of a 5 degree Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in temperature. And central to these assessments is the idea of militarized borders, repelling people as they come across. They study migration; the fact that people are migrating is presented as a threat. The idea is that we have to stop it, put up a border wall to stop it.

How does the U.S. contribute to worldwide climate change?

We're pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. We're in a car culture. You have to buy a car. Why aren't we switching to electric cars, or even making it illegal to buy cars that use fossil fuel?

The future is unwritten right now. It's not inevitable. There are things we still can do, serious mitigation efforts on greenhouse gas. We can continue with a militarized enforcement solution for people migrating—or we can we rethink what we're doing.